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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Smart

Deployment Cake, Honesty and Kurt Vonnegut’s Uncle

Updated: Feb 24, 2022

Our youngest rugrat, Facetiming Dad before school to show him a Lego creation

Twenty years ago today, I was cutting the cake at my assumption of command reception at an Army post Somewhere In Alabama. At some point when I was about halfway through (messily) slicing a row of cake squares, a really young soldier with a really urgent face came to tell my husband to take an official phone call. It was the 90’s, when you had to leave the building, drive across post, and take such calls in a secure room somewhere at the installation headquarters. It was all very Get Smart-ish.

I stayed at the reception (duh, there was cake. Oh wait, it was also my place of duty.) My husband was gone for hours, long after the last half empty plastic cup of punch was tossed into an industrial-sized trash bag.

When he came back, his expression didn’t read “Yay, Cake!” He’d found out that his company was alerted to deploy to Kuwait on short notice. He was the company commander, and this meant (1) logistics planning on a massive scale, (2) long hours, (3) responsibility for other people, so therefore (4) lots of self-induced pressure to get it right, for all the soldiers and families involved.

We weren’t really in a “Yay, Cake!” mood when we got home that night, either.

In the days leading up to the deployment, we listlessly ate the leftovers from the reception (I’d gone a little overboard on the number of sandwiches…there were so, so many sandwiches). We tried to look normal at work and lean in to our respective professional challenges (which were, let’s face it, exciting – this is what you train for, you know?). Then we’d spend the scarce hours we had after work trying to process real emotions of grief and uncertainty and sadness and fear that we were both feeling. We felt like we were a team, and losing a teammate at a time when we needed each other. Then we felt guilty, because hey, you’re a professional, right? You’re supposed to jump at the chance to go prove your mettle at the job the taxpayers are (kindly) paying you for.

So much was different two decades ago, and because it was two decades ago we can choose the lens we look through to reminisce. We can laugh now at how “long” the deployments were back then compared to now, or talk about the days when units almost always deployed with all their rolling stock and tentage (don’t mix the fiberglass camo spreaders with the metal ones, or your change of command inventory will be a MESS), or realize that this story took place several uniform changes and/or unit de- and reactivations ago, and now you’re old and at the part of your life when you categorize the old days by what unit you were in at the time.

One of the lenses I haven’t looked through is the “wait, how did we make it through that?” one. It’s a small lens, the kind you keep in the bottom of your kit bag. The more distant those days become, the less painful it is to take out that lens and look through it.

Deployments are weird. You’re supposed to be psyched about going, because it is the fundamental part of being in the military that you’re trained to be ready for. Your whole job is to be good at this thing. Because you believe in what you do, when the alert comes, part of you wants to go, grab that guidon, charge that hill, do all the metaphors.

In the days before the deployment, though, there’s another part of you that shows up. This part feels guilty about even existing. This is the part you don’t talk about with your buddies when you grab lunch at the Burger King in the PX food court. This is the part of you that wants to sit in bed with your loved one til noon on a Saturday and sing “Come Away With Me” by Norah Jones, while you both watch the rain fall and listen to your kids play Legos and try to pretend one of you isn’t leaving. This is the part that doesn’t want to watch the weather report because your deployment falls within the 10-, or 5-, or 3-day forecast. It’s the part that remembers things, odd little things, and gives them outsized significance during the 4, 6, 12, 14 months of your separation – the little action figure your youngest kid left on the front seat of the van when you went to the airport, or the way the dog wouldn’t come up to you after he saw your A and B bags in the hallway by the front door. These things become symbols, and those symbols matter.

Soooooo long ago. The boys the day Dad got home from their first deployment.

To be honest, the hard part isn’t the leaving itself. By the time you’re all lined up at some predawn motor pool, dressed in winter coats and pajama pants and watching the guys in your unit toss duffel bags into the bowels of diesel-belching buses, everyone in the house is pretty numb. This is a godsend, because (in the most awful way) being numb normalizes what is a really horrific experience.

No, the hardest part happens a few days before the departure. It’s when you make the deliberate decision to build a wall to protect yourself. You both have to do it. The kids have to do it, too, which is admirable and strong and highly dysfunctional all at once. You have to realize that tomorrow, or two weeks from tomorrow, or whenever, that one of you is going to get on a plane/train/automobile and deploy to someplace where you both can’t interact the way you do at home.

You each look at the Sisyphean hills you have to climb, and the weight of the idea that you’ll be doing it without your partner is as heavy as Jacob Marley’s chains. You get mad, you cry, you spend too much on Amazon, you do all the things you do before you realize you have to put up a wall so you can get by. You also have to give your partner permission to do the same – because his/her road is long, and that hill is high also.

The part that sticks with me though is how weird and yet how totally normal it was, every time. But when you consider it, making a decision like that is seriously messed up. Think about how odd something like that would seem in the context of life outside the military. People would write articles about it, examine it. We don’t really look at it much. Instead, we take pride in it and add it to our emotional resumes.

That’s good, and it’s also not good.

The kids and their dad. It’s totally a carpe diem cliche but I can’t love this enough.

Disruption of family life has significant impacts for anyone. For years I didn’t really engage with the idea that this applied to us military families, too. It didn’t occur to me that things we do now, ways we and our kids behave now, are the result of things that were just part of military life. I became ridiculously, almost unhealthily, independent. (“You can’t tell me nothin’! Even if I should listen…”). Both our kids have at some point deliberately gone years at a stretch without crying or demonstrating emotion, because they didn’t want to let anything affect them to the point where they felt it. They essentially shut down a mechanism of processing feelings, because of the repeated trauma of saying goodbye to a parent.

That’s just…weird.

I’m the butterball in the middle. Army brat from way back.

Please do not think that I’m speaking ill of military life, or saying that deployments are only bad and everybody suffers. I’m an Army brat, a veteran and an Army spouse. This wonderful, crazy merry-go-round has been my life for almost half a century, and it still is. It has fed me, housed me, educated me, sent me around the world more than a few times. It has made me who I am, and created opportunities that would have never been open to me otherwise.

What I’m saying, from the inside of this life, is that it is hard. It is wonderful and it is hard. It’s hard and you have to get by, and you do. You get by with the help of family and friends and others who have gone through it or who are going through it with you. You get by because you have to, because the kids need you, because you are Kicking This in The A$$ and you just need to get through this next day. Good job, you!

The thing that helps me able to get by–now, I mean–is actually saying it out loud. Here, I’ll do it again:

Military life is hard.

I’m not whining. It just is.

The rugrats who trash the house, before they became taller than me.

When you’re young, or promotions are still uncertain and it’s your paycheck, and because you want to fit in with the corporate culture, and because it shows really crappy leadership to gripe in front of your soldiers and/or their families, you never go negative. “We’re honored to serve, thrilled to be here, proud of our soldier.” All that is still true – but now that I’ve got crow’s feet and a mortgage and teenagers, now that I’ve lived through the death of a parent and realized how fleeting our time really is – I want to be honest more often. I want to say, “Hey, this is rough. Can we be real? Is it rough for you too? Let’s share the burden for a minute while our kids trash the house. Have a seat, I’ve got wine/coffee/Cheez Balls/all of the above.”

Talking about it doesn’t mean you’re not gonna do the thing you gotta do. It doesn’t mean you turn into a toxic griper. It means that you open the door to say that “hey, I’m totally not handling this as well as the Pinterest world seems to be. But I’m handling it.”

Back to 1998 – my husband deployed, I survived, I learned some new hobbies that I’ve maintained for lo these 20 years, I met friends and learned about life from them, I learned how to use a lawn mower (do not laugh, I grew up in apartments), and then he came back. Lather, rinse, repeat a few more times. And here we are, still ticking. So, like Kurt Vonnegut’s Uncle Alex used to say,”if this isn’t nice, what is?”

If you’ve lived this life, I tip my hat to you. You’ve been there too. If you’re still living this life, I’m going to give you a virtual hug and tell you this: you’re amazing. You’re handling it. Go you. Have a seat, I’ll bring the Cheez Balls.

Me, in Bosnia, with seriously bad hair.

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